Need to know
Many people struggle to like themselves – perhaps you are one of them. You might carry shame or regret at things you’ve done, or maybe you feel broken, bad or inadequate in some way? What if I were to tell you that you are inherently good, kind and loving at your core, and that there is nothing wrong with you? My guess is that you’d probably respond on the inside with something like: ‘He doesn’t know me,’ or ‘He doesn’t know some of the things that I’ve done.’ As a psychotherapist, I’m used to these kinds of comments, and have come to know from years of experience that everyone is indeed inherently good, although different parts of us may behave in extreme ways. These extremes point to the healing that we need, and can bring to ourselves.
I practise internal family systems therapy (IFS) – an approach developed by the US psychotherapist Richard Schwartz that sees the different parts within each of us operating much like families interact. Sometimes, your different parts are squabbling; sometimes, they’re working together; and sometimes, they’re fiercely protective of other members. Schwartz came to this realisation after listening to clients – really listening. He found they (like you) would say: ‘A part of me likes/hates this…’ and he wondered what would happen if we recognised those parts as being real.
You have many different parts, and a core Self
IFS holds two things to be true:
- Your personality consists of many different parts.
- At your core, your true Self, inherently loving, is present and available.
This might sound strange at first, but think about it a moment, and you’ll realise that we talk about the different parts of ourselves all the time. If a friend asked if you wanted to try a new restaurant on Friday for lunch, you might say: ‘Part of me does but part of me doesn’t.’ Maybe the part that wants to say ‘yes’ likes trying new places. Maybe the part saying ‘no’ wants to keep Friday open – it’s your day off.
IFS understands these distinct parts to be real – and to have relationships with each other; perhaps protective, sometimes oppositional, maybe allied. You know that critical voice in your head that tells you that you should have done ‘X’ or shouldn’t have done ‘Y’, and that beats you up? That too is another of your parts.
According to IFS, our parts are quite literally little beings inside of us with thoughts and feelings and their own experiences. When they ‘blend’ with us – ie, take over our whole system – then in that moment it can ‘feel’ like that’s who we are. For example, if I’m mad at you, then I’m mad at you. If later I’m crying while watching a movie, then I’m just sad. But IFS suggests that maybe both the angry me and the sad me are separate parts of myself, since I’m not sad nor angry all the time. In contrast, what is always available to me, at least when I feel safe and calm? My love, kindness, courage, creativity, curiosity. When Schwartz listened to his clients talk about these loving parts of themselves, they would say: ‘That feels more like me.’ Over time, he realised that this is the core Self, which has specific qualities that can engage with the different parts.
It helps to know some basic IFS terminology
Before I explain more about how you can use IFS, it’s going to help you to know some of the basic terms and concepts:
Core Self: these are your qualities of compassion, curiosity, calmness, confidence, connectedness, clarity, creativity and courage
Protective parts: the proactive parts of these are your managers. They like to manage your life to make you look good; they often use that ‘should’ voice inside your head. Your inner critic – the one that beats you up for the mistakes you make, or for your supposed flaws – is one of these manager parts.
Vulnerable parts: these sensitive parts are your exiles. They’re the parts of you holding distressing feelings and/or beliefs. For instance, it’s very common to have a part that believes it is not good enough. It has been shamed, and carries that burden. These parts are often young and frozen in the past; for example, a kid who was respeatedly told they were a disappointment at eight years old can get stuck at that age. Manager parts may decide that the best way to protect this kid is to always be perfect, so they don’t get criticised again.
Protective parts: the reactive parts of these are your firefighters. When an exile is ‘triggered’, for example your partner shames you for something you did, then, to protect you from becoming engulfed by shame, your firefighter part may become enraged, or use drugs, alcohol food, porn or other activities, to distract you from the emotional pain. Firefighter parts often don’t make us look good, so managers will get on their case. Say your firefighting part got drunk as a way to mask a socially awkward part – ie, one of your exiles. The voices you might then hear in your head could be these two parts – your firefighter and your manager – arguing: ‘I can’t believe you drunk so much last night!’ And in response: ‘It wasn’t that much, I needed to relax.’ Which gets followed by: ‘You made a fool of yourself!’ etc.
Listening to your parts can help you know them better and begin healing
But here’s the thing – all the parts have a positive intent: ie, they are all trying to help in some way. Let’s say a friend has rented the local swimming pool for a party and they invite you, letting you know the theme is ‘Bikinis and Speedos’. If there is a part of you that doesn’t feel comfortable in your body, you may have an internal debate that sounds something like this:
‘I don’t think I’ll go; I wouldn’t be comfortable.’
‘You have to go, they’re your friend. Besides, they might think you’re blowing them off.’
‘How about if we wear something to cover ourselves up?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, then we’d really draw attention to ourselves.’
‘It’s not for two months, maybe we can diet and hit the gym more.’
‘That never works; besides, I’m sick of starving myself.’
So what’s going on here? From an IFS perspective, these are your manager parts talking; can you hear the ‘should’ voice concerned about how you appear to others? All have a good intent, but, as you can see, they don’t necessarily agree with each other, and this can create a lot of psychic tension – referred to as the ‘monkey mind’ in some Buddhist traditions. Manager parts also serve you by trying to make sure that the exile parts holding distress or burdens (such as the one that feels some body shame) don’t get triggered and take over. They are proactive in keeping the ones holding the pain in their place.
Now let’s imagine that the manager parts, concerned about what people might think, team up with the dieting manager part, and they override the not-going part, so you find yourself at the pool party. At the potluck table, you are considering having a piece of delicious-looking cheesecake when another guest leans towards you and says: ‘Oh you’re so brave… I couldn’t even look at that cheesecake.’ You might feel a stab of shame… and then immediately get mad, and/or leave the party, or suddenly need a nap, or want to smoke a joint, or crave a drink (ie, your firefighter takes over).
Let’s say your angry firefighter says loudly to the other guest: ‘How dare you comment on my food choices? What makes you think you have the right?’ and you leave the party in anger. Chances are, as you drive home and get away from the trigger, you will hear something like this in your head (a clash between your firefighter and manager parts):
‘What’s wrong with you – I can’t believe you just did that, and everybody noticed!’
‘Well I had every right to, they shouldn’t have said that.’
‘But now everybody will be talking about us – have you no self-control?’
‘They deserved it.’
You might have experienced similar situations yourself – it needn’t be a pool party, of course: it could be something at work, at a get-together with friends, a domestic situation – anywhere that your parts end up in conflict over how best to protect you. But what if you could deal with these kinds of situation differently? IFS offers a route to healing, self-forgiveness and acceptance. It sees the core Self in everyone as characterised by the qualities of compassion, curiosity, calmness, creativity, courage, connectedness, confidence and clarity. It’s your true loving nature, often obscured by your parts. Following the principles of IFS then, in the pool example, you would thank your firefighter for getting you out of a threatening situation, while also appreciating your manager’s attempts to ensure it doesn’t happen again. With time, you would allow your core Self to get to know the hurting exile that holds the burden of body shame, and help it to release that burden. Then your protective parts, whose behavioural strategies are compelled by the exiled part’s distress, could relax.
An important first step toward this form of healing is to get curious about your different parts. In this Guide, I’ll show you several ways to begin exploring your various parts and to acknowledge their different functions and needs. Getting to know your parts in this way, and allowing them to be heard, can be a healing process in itself.
What to do
The more that your parts know that they can trust you (your core Self), the more that your emotional health will benefit. A simple way to build this inner trust is to familiarise yourself with your different parts and let them be heard. I’m going to take you through various exercises you can complete to help you do just that.
One way to get to know your parts is with journaling, especially if this is something you already do. You may want to review your journal and look for the voices of different parts that may have written in a certain ‘mood’. Maybe a part wants to be known in a certain way, as ‘the planner’, or ‘the bitch’. Maybe not. Different parts want different things. Try to listen in to your parts and let them tell you.
Let’s apply this to a specific situation. There may be a decision that you need to make, for instance taking a new job you have been offered. There will likely be a few parts wanting it, and some that don’t. You can split the page in half, and have one part write its position on the left, another with the opposing view on the right – perhaps in a different colour or lower down the page so the distinction is clear, like this:
These different parts are making very good points and all in service of your system. When their conversation is done, you can close the journal. Then reopen it when you are feeling calm and curious about their viewpoints (instead of identifying with their polarisation). Then you’ll be able to let them both know that you hear their concerns and viewpoints by simply acknowledging them internally. This may feel odd at first, yet your parts will appreciate your intent. You may want to stay exploring one and then the other. Where does the concern about money come from? Is there more to say? How about the kids having trouble making friends? Is that part of your story? Is that informing this part’s worry? Ultimately, you do need to make a decision, and if these parts feel heard and respected by you it will minimise the backlash – the inevitable, ‘I told you so!’ we hear in our heads when things don’t go well – whichever path we take.
Use email accounts or video
If it appeals to you, then you could consider setting up an email account for your parts to write to, perhaps more than one. For instance, if there is a person you’re in conflict with, then you may have a righteous part that wants to tell them exactly what it thinks of them. That part can take a lot of pleasure in venting all of that in an email. Then with great satisfaction it can hit ‘Send’.
To do this, set up a purpose-made account, such as ‘righteous @ hotmail.com’, and listen in to your righteous part and allow that part to write exactly what it wants to say in an email, and send it to that private address that only you can access. Later that day, or the next day when you are feeling less intensely about it, and a bit more core-Self energy is available to you (ie, when you’re feeling calm and curious), you may want to open and read the email, letting the part know that you get it internally.
One of my clients who was furious with her partner was able to channel her firefighter in this way – she would frequently vent at them with this email technique. In therapy, we reflected on these emails, and she let her firefighter know she’d listened. This approach gave us time to explore the exiled part of her that was feeling hurt by her partner, while at the same she was able to maintain a more harmonious relationship in the outside world.
Another way to connect with your parts and hear their perspective is by recording videos of your parts speaking. I suggest starting with very common parts such as ‘the critic’, ‘the intellectualiser’, ‘the people-pleaser’ or ‘the perfectionist’. (If you don’t recognise any of those, choose one of your own parts that you’d like to get to know better.) Next, invite your chosen part to record what it likes about itself – allow it to take as long or as little time as it likes. When you watch it back, see if you can appreciate its perspective. Remember, all of these exercises are designed to help you separate out your different parts and get to know them better.
Here’s a slightly different way to use video: say you’re really mad at someone and your angry firefighter is present. If it is blended with you, then, once you’re on your own in a safe place, make a video with your phone – you might want to imagine that you are speaking to the person your firefighter part is angry at. Let your firefighter have free rein, telling the person you’re angry with exactly what you think of them, what you’d like to do to them etc, venting it all. At some point later that day, or another time when you are feeling calm(er) and curious about that angry part, you might want to watch the video and see what comes up for you. When you do this, remember that your angry part was protecting you or another part. Angry parts will often soften back when they hear the sincerity of your response. You may have parts coming up that don’t like the firefighter or judge it (often manager parts), and you can acknowledge them too, so that they can unblend as you stay connected to the angry part with as much genuine appreciation as is available to you. When the parts that don’t like the firefighter get your attention, you might want to jot down those parts on paper, perhaps to return to later.
Map your different parts and how they relate to each other
Some people like to map out their parts, and there are a number of ways to do that, such as by using paper cards.
Here’s an example of a map that one of my students did of a group of parts that typically arise when she’s in conflict with her partner:
You can do this using stick figures and labels on cards, or you can just use words and not worry about drawing – whatever works best for you. Start wherever feels appropriate, and let your feelings and intuition guide you. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. As you identify parts to put on a card, you’ll come to see that these are the parts of you wanting to be known. If you find yourself overthinking this exercise, congratulations! You’ve just met your ‘figuring it out’ part. Put that one down on a card and say ‘Hi’ to it.
Once my student had got these parts down, she was able to notice some relationships between them. The ‘helpless child’, ‘worrier’, ‘scared kid’ and ‘worthless’ and ‘depressed’ parts all clustered together. ‘Superwoman’ and ‘the pleaser’ worked together. The ‘hateful’ part fuelled the anger that informed the ‘self-righteous judge’ that led to that part wanting to leave the relationship. When those parts escalated, the ‘dissociating part’ would step in to take her away from all those ‘troublesome feelings’.
Once my student attended to her parts in this way, and let them know that she was now an adult and that she appreciated how hard they had been working, she found that things began to shift. She chose to share her map with her partner, and it led to a very fruitful conversation about how they trigger each other’s parts, and a commitment to be more aware of that. She and her partner love each other (Self connecting to Self) but, when the protective parts take over, there is little or none of that love available. After all, their protective parts are concerned about their own respective systems, not their partner’s.
When you map your parts in this way, you may choose to keep this work to yourself as it can be triggering to a partner, who may respond from their own protective parts. Or if you believe your partner is receptive, you may decide to share your map and ask about their parts in turn.
Use a sandtray
Another fun way to get to know your parts (in three dimensions) is by using a sandtray. For this, I recommend getting a plant pot base, fairly wide, and some aquarium sand from the pet store as it is really fine sand and nice to work with. Then head to the dollar store and get a bunch of toys/figurines that appeal to you – some that reflect the different parts of you. Select the ones that seem to grab your eye, but I suggest you also keep an eye out for any manager part that wants to present you only in what it considers to be a good light. Be honest with yourself. Chances are you have an ‘inner asshole’ or somesuch (I know I do). In all likelihood, you’ll have to make another trip once your drinking/drugging/food-using firefighters get in on the act.
Once you get home and set things up, you can start to play with your parts and where they might like to go. Do you have a ‘regal part’ that wants to be positioned on top of a hill of sand? What about a ‘manipulating part’ that likes to go under cover? Maybe that part would like to be covered with a tissue – or be only partially visible. Is a ‘dragon’ part of your crew? How about ‘the procrastinator’? Does a ‘guilt-tripper’ want to make an appearance? Where are these parts in relation to each other? Do they all know about each other?
Once the task feels done, you can stay with your parts, let them know you are there and again thank them for all they do, either out loud or internally. This is your team and they work very hard for you. By completing this exercise, you may get more clarity on the relationships between your parts and, as you sit with them, you might get more information about them, more awareness. You may even find that they get curious about you. Just stay open to whatever needs to come and how your parts want to convey the information to you.
Use a body map to understand the physical side of your parts
Parts tend to get our attention visually, intuitively, auditorily or somatically – that is, through the body. If your parts give you information via your body – for example you have the thought ‘I feel it in my gut,’ ‘My neck is really tense’ or if chronic pain is part of your story – then you may want to work with a body map. Before proceeding, please remember it is always important to consult a medical professional about any health concerns you might have.
In the context of IFS, the body map is an outline of your body – either draw one or print one off the internet – that you can use to become more aware of your parts.
If you notice tension in your neck, for instance, then show it on your body map using colours, shading or words of your choice. As you do that, you may notice butterflies in your stomach. Find a way to represent that too, after asking internally: ‘Are you a part of me?’ and waiting for the response. Keep going until the map feels complete for now (you’ll know intuitively when you’ve reached that point).
Next, get curious about these presentations. If you have chronic pain, then get that down on the map and be open to the parts of you that are connected to it. Often the first part to come up as being associated with the pain is one that hates it. Put that one down and then stay curious: are there any other parts connected with the pain?
One of my students completed a body map and, as she listened to her parts internally, she was surprised to discover that her habitual gastrointestinal distress belonged to a young part. She described to me how this part told her that it had discovered that tummy aches meant she’d get some attention from a neglectful parent. By listening attentively to this exiled-child part, my student found that it temporarily eased this part’s loneliness.
The benefit of more casual check-ins
Aside from all the techniques I’ve described above, sometimes you may just find it easy to connect with your parts in a more casual, spontaneous way. I’ll often, while walking the dog, say: ‘OK, who’s up?’ and invite my parts to let me know whatever they choose. Your parts are yours, just as mine are mine. And your core Self can love them, even if they don’t love themselves or each other. This is one of the things that makes the IFS understanding so radical, and so beautiful.
Getting to know your parts and acknowledging them may be the first step toward healing and self-love. As you get to know your parts and they get to know that you are available for them as the calm, loving adult presence that is at your core (when not being obscured by parts), there will be more trust available as they acknowledge that you can take care of the system. This may not be their initial response to you: some parts might want to know where you’ve been, how come you didn’t help when bad things happened? They might be mad at you, or disbelieve that you’re going to stick around. All their responses are valid and welcome, and you can let them know that. And also that you’re sorry you were not there to help when they needed it (if that feels genuine) and that you’re here now.
The exercises in this Guide may seem strange at first – if you feel this way at any point, you can always start by acknowledging the part or parts that find it odd, and ask if you can do it anyway. You may have a sceptic part – if so, welcome it. Or a part that thinks you’re making it all up. It too can be included. And then you can go beyond getting to know them, and start the healing.
Key points – How to get to know all (the parts) of you
- You have many different parts and a core Self. According to internal family systems (IFS) therapy, you have distinct parts that have relationships to each other, just like a human family.
- It helps to know some basic IFS terminology. For instance, you have ‘manager’ parts that try to make you look good; ‘exiles’ that carry distressing feelings from your past; and ‘firefighter’ parts that react to protect exiles when they’re triggered.
- Listening to your parts can help you know them better and begin healing. All your parts are trying to help you in some way. Getting curious about them and letting them be heard is a healing process in itself.
- Use journaling. One way to get to know your parts is with journaling, especially if this is something that you already do.
- Use email accounts or video. This is a way to give a voice to your different parts. When you are feeling calm and curious, you can read or watch them back, thus allowing the parts to feel heard.
- Map your different parts and how they relate to each other. You can use paper cards to represent your parts. Start wherever feels appropriate, and let your feelings and intuition guide you.
- Use a sandtray. This is another fun way to get to know your parts but this time in three dimensions. Once you have things set up, you can start to play with your parts and where they might like to go.
- Use a body map to understand the physical side of your parts. As well as getting your attention visually, intuitively and auditorily, your parts can also speak to you somatically – that is, through the body – and drawing a body map can help you tune in to these messages.
- The benefit of more casual check-ins. Aside from all these exercises, sometimes it is beneficial to connect with your parts in a more spontaneous way such as when out walking – just ask them: ‘OK, who’s up?’
Using IFS to overcome feelings of shame
The methods of internal family systems therapy can be used to deal with specific difficult emotions, such as persistent feelings of shame. For an idea of how this works, take some time and space where you can be quiet and alone with no distractions. Maybe close your eyes and ask, on the inside, if it’s OK to get to know a part of you feeling shame about something. Then wait to see what happens. You may notice distracting thoughts, you may feel stupid, maybe a thought saying: ‘This is weird,’ or ‘It’s not going to work’ or any number of other parts’ voices and/or feelings presenting themselves. Acknowledge the ones that hold these opinions and/or feelings – they are entitled to them – then see if they would be willing to soften back, perhaps go to a waiting room. If they do not wish to do that, then bring your curiosity to them, and see what their concern might be about you getting to know a part not feeling good about itself.
Ask the parts with concerns to tell you how old you are. That may sound odd but protective parts often take their role when we are young. For example, your ‘people-pleaser’ part might have started its role at age five to avoid parental criticism; and it might think that you are still five years old. Take the time to update these parts, sending them information about your current age in whatever way makes sense to you. That may be as far as you need to go for now.
The most common concern of the protective parts is that, by engaging with a vulnerable part struggling with shame, you may become overwhelmed, because often young parts feeling shame are overwhelmed with the distress they are holding – and, as you get to know them, they may flood your system. If this is your experience and your degree of shame is intense, then my advice is to explore your exiled parts with a therapist who is familiar with IFS.
If, however, it feels OK to go ahead, then check to see if you’re feeling genuinely curious about the part holding shame. Where did it pick up that shame? You weren’t born carrying it. At what point did that begin to happen? You may notice that when these questions arise, a ‘figuring it out’ part likes to pop up. It may say: ‘Well, we were teased by the mean kids for being fat when we were 12 so it must have happened then.’ That part is used to helping out in that way. And it may be right. So, if you are hearing from it, please thank it for stepping in, and see if it can step back to allow you to ask the part holding body shame directly.
This may take many attempts, which is fine. And you may be able to hear the exiled part’s story. When we are able to compassionately witness what happened, how a part came to believe it is worthless (for example), it is able to release that burden – it’s as if a compassionate adult was around at the time helping it to understand that the shaming comments are simply not true.
When that occurs, when the shame dimming the light of your Self is released, your protective parts can stand down, and you are increasingly able to manifest the delight in who and how you are in the world – with all of your amazing parts.
Because there is nothing wrong with you, me, or any of us.
Links & books
My personal website has many free IFS resources: articles, PowerPoint presentations etc, under the resources tab.
The book Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model (2001) by Richard Schwartz, founder of internal family systems, provides an excellent introduction to IFS.
My YouTube channel features a lot of free video resources, including ‘Exploring your Own System’ (2010); a brief introductory video I made in 2011 about understanding the personality system (according to IFS therapy); a full IFS session with an IFS therapist recorded in 2021, including the unburdening of an ‘exile’; and a video series from 2019 that takes you to a guided meditation to release shame in your own system.
Here is a directory of IFS and IFS-informed therapists in the United States and Canada; for the UK, it’s here. And for Australia, it’s here.